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Edward Burns: 'Super Serve Your Niche'

Actor, writer, director passed along Tyler Perry advice, quips and tips for budding filmmakers during screening of his latest movie at Clearview Cinemas in Morristown.

It's not his life, simply a combination of a number of lives he was familiar with during his time growing up on Long Island.

That, according to filmmaker Edward Burns, following a screening of his latest movie, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, on Wednesday night at Clearview Cinemas. The screening was part of the NY Film Critics Series, a collection of movies and Q&As organized for nearly two decades by local film buffs Ira and Mark Ehrenkranz.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, written, directed by and starring Burns—who found notoriety in 1995 for his Sundance Film Festival winning film The Brothers McMullen—focuses on a large Irish Catholic family, splintered over time in large part because of their father's exit 20 years before. When their father reveals to Burns' character Gerry—the defacto patriarch—a critical need to be able to spend Christmas with everyone, what results is an examination into the dynamics of a family and how they deal with what life delivers.

Burns said he chose to return to what he called his roots after getting some advice from Tyler Perry, the filmmaker known for the series of Madea movies.

"'Super serve your niche,'" Burns said.

But, the filmmaker wondered, "could I still do that with any authenticity?" After all, the self-described "local boy does good" is a long way from Valley Stream. A look at his body of work—not to mention supermodel wife Christy Turlington—can attest to that.

Still, Burns said despite initial worry, "all of these stories you grow up hearing, they're in your subconscious mind."

That includes large Roman Catholic families with fathers that flew the coop. Burns—one of three children in a stable household—recalled one friend, one of nine children, who had an abusive, alcoholic father early on. The man cleaned himself up and, with the younger children, "he was a big teddy bear," Burns said.

A similar element is seen in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, where the older siblings are willing to give their father some slack, as opposed to the youngest two, who barely remember their father being at home.

Burns said of his work, "they need to have a real sense of place. I don't make films in Anytown USA."

As such, the house used as the primary location in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas was "six doors down from where I grew up," Burns said, since his parents have since sold their old house.

Comments from the audience ranged from his experiences in movies like Saving Private Ryan—"I turned and thought, 'oh my God, it's Tom Hanks,'" Burns said—to the costs for his usually low-budget films. Another recent film, Newlyweds, cost $125,000, a pittance compared to even many independent productions.

"See? You can try this at home," said film critic and regular NY Film Critics Series host Peter Travers.

Another comment, from a balding middle-aged gentleman, "you have great hair," which elicited a number of laughs from the audience and a smile from the star.

Ultimately, Burns said anyone also looking to get involved in filmmaking should consider the old advice of "writing what you know.

"That said, it is Hollywood," he said. "It's hard to make, hard to sell to you in the marketplace."

Also, it can help to be in the right place at the right time.

While working as a gopher for Entertainment Tonight, the then-unknown Burns recalled sharing an elevator with Robert Redford, the legendary actor and founder of the Sundance Film Festival.

He gave Redford the pitch for The Brothers McMullen and a VHS copy of the film. "Three weeks later, I was in the Sundance Film Festival," he said.

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